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How easy is it to be influenced by advertising?

Advertising, Critical Thinking

Pretty easily, it turns out. That’s according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research which suggests that at least part of our response to advertising is beyond our control.

The research, reports INSEAD, examines “automatic mental impressions triggered by supra-liminal stimuli” – essentially advertising which leads to unconscious learning. This is an interesting element of critical thinking.

The research team, led by Mandy Hütter (of Eberhard Karls University Tübingen) and Steven Sweldens (of RSM, Erasmus University and INSEAD), focused on evaluative conditioning (EC), which pairs things with the intention that the positive or negative associations of one will rub off onto the other.

A classic use of EC is the celebrity endorsement – positioning a product alongside something or someone people already love. Celebrity endorsement is, in fact, possibly the oldest form of advertising – it dates back to the 1760s, when Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, producers of pottery and chinaware, used royal endorsements.

Hütter and Sweldens wanted to know if automatic response is behind the success of EC. They devised six experiments, the upshot of which was consistent statistical evidence of automaticity.

Sweldens says in summary: “If you see 20 commercials, and are trying not to be influenced, for four or five of them, you are going to fail and your attitudes are going to be changed despite your best efforts.”

Given that the average adult is exposed to as many as 5,000 ads in a given day, this is significant.

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